Anna had been nine years old when she realized the company of the dead was preferable to that of the living.
Sixteen years among stuffy academics and Bellcaster high society had done little to change her opinion on the matter. The dead didn’t argue and they didn’t doubt her. They didn’t try to place her in a gilded box built with the preconceived notions of who she should be or what she should want.
The deceased were a little smelly, of course, but so were the living.
Unfortunately, ceremonial flowers did little to hide the stench of decay, especially when one sat so incredibly close. Anna adjusted her arm beneath her head and stared into the empty eye sockets of a bleached skull. Based on their hips, the skull likely belonged to a woman.
“Do you know where the khan is?” she asked the thousand-year-old woman.
The woman kept her silence, her jaw askew.
“You realize if you tell me where he is, that open seat on the Board of Antiquity will be mine? Those crotchety old men will have to let me sit in it.”
Anna sighed quietly. “As a woman gifted to the khan’s harem, I would think you’d want to help me. Designated to breeding and child-rearing. A life not your own, no choice in the matter because you were not born a man.” She shook her head and dropped her voice to a whisper. “I’m fighting that, you know, the standard that we marry young and have little babies and do not go on adventures. Finding the khan will do just that. This goes beyond notoriety.”
Moisture somewhere in the cavern dripped into a puddle. It was the only sound beyond her breathing and the scratching of her clothes against stone. Delicate dried petals adorned the sparkly grey slab, part of a mortuary ritual Anna hadn’t quite cracked yet. She had removed most of them but the few she’d missed had been crushed to dust beneath her weight.
She tucked her legs underneath herself and sucked on her teeth. “Why keep secrets for a man who murdered you? The marks are easy enough to see on your vertebra—clean, deep cuts, at least. It was fast, wasn’t it?”
Anna thought maybe the woman’s eye sockets had darkened, but that wasn’t possible, not really. Stare into nothing long enough and the mind was bound to play tricks. The shadows and the dark were mischievous entities, tricksters and bargainers, granting what one wishes without telling the price.
Staring into the empty eye sockets of the dead was no different.
Shadows and tricks and desires with an unknowable cost.
Despite Anna’s staring, the thousand-year-old woman did not utter a secret. Not with words and not with her bones. The dead did not speak a language many understood and this woman was determined to keep her secrets even from Anna. Rolling to her back atop the stone altar, she stared at the cavern ceiling hundreds of feet above. Clues often hid in the landscape of a tomb as much as they decorated the inside of one.
Paint crafted to glow adorned the dark stone in pale blues and greens in absolutely stunning whorls. She cocked her head. The specks mimicked the night sky. They weren’t necessarily placed correctly, but Anna knew the khan hadn’t cared about accuracy, favoring only constellations related to the sea. She hadn’t figured out why yet, but she would one day.
The Kraken peeked around a stalactite, glowing a soft green. Just above Anna sat the Fishmonger with his Great Net. And there, twined together like serpents, were the Tides of Fate, always pointing to the North Star, guiding men and women ever forward whether they knew it or not.
Granbaatar Khan had pulled nautical symbols and water into his spaces whenever possible. Even here, old stone buckets filled with water surrounded the altar, each one large enough for her to stand in comfortably. A brief glance in them had revealed little boats filled with dried water lilies. One of the bottles of incense she’d opened had smelled of the sea, of seaweed and sand.
Anna sat up, looking at the candles lining the path of crushed shells to the altar and then back to the ceiling. It was a tiny room, carved straight up. Originally, she had thought this would be a treasure chamber, full of iron coins and jewels fit for a queen.
Instead she’d stumbled upon a chamber containing a favored consort and a sweet little apology letter scrawled into the ground. It was an old dialect, one she hadn’t studied at university but Anna had understood the gist. Something about not realizing the woman could die from what had been done, that she drank from a sacred cup, gifted by Granbaatar Khan himself, and it should not have been possible. That bit was repeated quite often, the impossibility of what had happened.
An absurd notion, really.
Remove anything’s head and surely it would die.
She sat back on her hands and hopped to the floor, careful of the shells beneath her feet. Another turn in place revealed about as much as the woman had. Not enough.
Anna huffed, placed her hands on her hips and tipped her head back. It was an apt description of the predicament she found herself in as well.
Twenty-five and unwed and not enough to show for it—not for a senator’s daughter.
But, there was an entire step pyramid to continue exploring. Anna had only happened upon this chamber by chance while jogging. She’d spent a week in the ruins above already, brushing at scripture carved into the wall and avoiding booby traps.
The khan had a strange sense of humor.
He built a massive step pyramid, inviting all who could see it inside, and then armed it to kill.
She dusted off her hands and carefully walked back into a tunnel and up into the sweltering jungle. The sun hung high in the sky at barely past seven. Plenty of time to go spelunking through the step pyramid, aptly named GB-SP21 by the Board of Antiquity.
Anna squinted up at the stone structure, one hand up to blot out the sun.
She hadn’t been to the top yet; maybe it was time she looked around.